Caught last night’s screening of the “Levitated Mass” documentary at LACMA as part of the LA Film Festival.
The film was tremendous. It retells the unexpected sensation created in the Los Angeles Basin when land artist Michael Heizer - one of the most influential, uncompromising and frankly obsessed artists of the past few decades - finally realized one of his long-sought projects, “Levitated Mass,” on the grounds of LACMA a year ago.
“Levitated Mass” involved moving a 340-ton rock from a Riverside County quarry some 105 miles by a winding path through 22 cities, then installing it astride a 400-foot-long trench on the LACMA grounds.
The film also looks at Heizer’s broader impacts as an artist beginning in the 1960s, the massive fundraising and engineering effort needed to finance and build the project and much more.
And as a bonus, Deadline’s Pete Hammond hosted a Q&A afterward with producer Jamie Patricof (“Blue Valentine,” “The Place Beyond the Pines”) and director Doug Pray. Pete’s on the left, Pray in the middle and Patricof on the left in this photo above.
Pete and I also talked with Patricof for an extended period afterward. He’s not only the producer of Derek Cianfrance’s two notable recent films, but also Cianfrance’s manager. Patricof is, happily, also a quite a charming and thoughtful conversationalist about what’s happening in Hollywood these days.
The financial risks Patricof and his colleagues) took to make this film happen were remarkable (it was just finished four days before the LAFF premiere, and is just starting to look for a buyer). Most importantly, Heizer had the legal right to kill the film up until the last minute if he didn’t like what Pray created.
When Pray shipped a “final” version to Heizer’s remote Nevada home three weeks ago, he could only hold his breath for days waiting for a response. Eventually, word came back from Heizer’s wife that the film was good, but Heizer wanted to substitute a batch of his own archival material for that used in the film. Pray spent much of the past couple of weeks working that material in, and agreed that it was a substantial improvement.
Don’t know if this movie will get a pickup from a U.S. distributor, but it should. It’s surprisingly absorbing, talking not only about a distinctive artist and a formidable engineering and political job (getting approvals from all those governmental entities is daunting to think about) but also about the fundamental nature of art and sculpture and how we relate to it, or don’t, when it involves a really, really big rock.
There are countless movies about dysfunctional families and the shenanigans that get into, and there are countless indie movies about dysfunctional families and quirky shenanigans that they get into, so putting those two together would sound like quirk overload. Luckily enough, Captain Fantastic doesn’t fall into either category—at least not enough to undermine the film as a whole. It still has its issues, namely the direction that’s so sympathetic at times that it becomes unclear or confusion in its intentions and it’s a too long, but that doesn’t stop it from being interesting, and Virgo Mortensen is great.
Ben (Mortensen) lives in the forest mountains with his six kids, all of who have never experienced contemporary society. They’ve been taught to hunt, they don’t use technology, and they celebrate Noam Chomsky’s birthday as if it’s a national holiday, during which Ben gives them presents such as bow and arrows and hunting knives. This is all that they’ve known, and although they’re a family that functions in their own right, they and their father also form a sort of a cult—a cult of oppositional and free thinking. When their bipolar mother (Trin Miller) commits suicide while in the hospital, they have to immigrate into society, coming across the children’s aunts, uncles, and grandparents.
The movie presents an interesting question: if a group of people is able to live on terms that seem fit for them even if they’re unusual and even regressive to others, does it matter given their success? There’s a fine line between damning the film’s characters as arrogant hippies unable to cope with the real world or self-made people that demonstrate a great amount of resilience and skill, even when it’s dangerous to them. The movie does a decent job at showing both sides of the argument from a screenwriting perspective. The dialogue is sharp and doesn’t milk humor out of traditionally bizarre situations and characters in the film have unique voices that carry equal weight but clash with each other nonetheless.
Watching this family live their lives in a relentlessly unique fashion is a little cathartic to watch, most of this coming from Viggo Mortensen’s lead performance. His character is a strong patriarch to these kids that challenges them, but he’s also frustratingly arrogant and encourages questionable behavior, and he marries these qualities together as an actor. The amount of times that I want to slap him in the face and say, “What are you doing to these kids?” is about as equal as the amount of times that I wanted to high five him for being so bold. Another very good performance is Kathryn Hahn in a supporting role as Ben’s sister and the kids’ aunt, who has great chemistry with Mortensen as their ideologies clash.
However, while the screenplay is good, there are some times when writer/director Matt Ross doesn’t entirely seem to know how to bring his own screenplay to the screen. Part of what makes the issues noticeable is that the script outshines the direction, and part of it is how the direction isn’t sure of what tone to carry at times. The material is, at its core, a little troubling. Nearly every action of this father could be construed as child abuse, and while the script acknowledges that, the sympathy and joyfulness that Ross’s direction brings creates a disconnect between what’s being depicted onscreen and what the characters onscreen think of what’s going on around them.
While I will say that the movie doesn’t make fun of its characters, which is easily could have at every turn, the it’s sometimes confusing as to whether or what their odd behavior should be endearing or troublesome. When the oldest son proposes to a girl at a trailer park after hanging out for a few hours, is that meant to be cringe comedy or is it supposed to be a genuine illustration of how socially inept he is? When all of the kids start surrounding a police officer to stop him from giving their father a ticket, are they supposed to be aware of how weird what they’re doing is or is it an example of how this man is brainwashing six minds? The movie gets it right movie of the time, but then there are times like this where it gets lost. I won’t spoil anything, but one thing that the family does towards the end is so bizarre and it’s portrayed in such a neutral manner that there isn’t much of a clear voice.
The movie also could have been cut down—it’s just short of two hours and I started to get bored, and acts one and also three feel disproportionally long as a result. The script overdoes the quirkiness factor a few times, and some of the six kids are interchangeable and the movie feel crowded at times since only two or three of them are actually developed.
While Ross tends to sabotage his own script with some uneven and unclear direction, Captain Fantastic still manages to engage the audience. Even if it has some moments of not knowing what it wants to say, it supplies the audience with themes but not answers and a great lead performance. While it’s usually filmmaking that helps redeem writing, it’s the opposite here, and while it’s flaws are unavoidable, it makes for an interesting—if sloppy—movie.
Australian writer-director Diesel Schwarze, a protege of Baz Luhrmann, is partnering with Electric City Entertainment to develop his debut feature film, an original musical Ziggy. Dane DeHaan and Rooney Mara are attached to star in the pic, which centers on a hunchback escape artist (DeHaan) who arrives in New York during the mass-culture boom of the late 1920s. As he falls in love with the fiancé (Mara) of a powerful media mogul, the story charts Ziggy’s rise to fame and subsequent fall amid a romantic world crashing down on its own impossible idealism.
The filmmakers have paired with British music producer and songwriter Alex Da Kid to develop original contemporary music for the pic. He has collaborated with Eminem, Dr. Dre, Rihanna, Imagine Dragons and Nicki Minaj among others. Diesel worked under Baz Luhrmann during Moulin Rougeand La Boheme on Broadway, and this project certainly seems to have the scope and flair of his Aussie compatriot.
“Ziggy is one of the most unique scripts I’ve ever read,” said Lynette Howell, who is producing with Electric City partner Jamie Patricof. “Diesel has written an incredibly beautiful and ambitious story and his background working under Baz Luhrmann combined with his prolific commercial work, lends itself to bringing this story to life in a visually inspired and exciting way.
CAA and WME will rep the film’s domestic distribution rights.